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Investing for the long term

What’s the line that appears somewhere in every set of tips to improve your performance?  “Get a coach”.  In the worlds of cycling, running and triathlon that tends to mean ‘find someone to sort out your training programme for you’:  Someone to tell you what to do each day and to plan your sessions.  That’s better than simply following a standard training plan, of course, because the plan is customised for you and you alone.  Or at least there is someone who should know what they’re doing taking charge.

I’ve seen and heard enough of this type of remote correspondence coaching to be a bit skeptical.  It’s quite easy to create a training plan, especially with few constraints – but a plan like this is only ever going to be fitness plan.  That’s OK, maybe, if your limiting factor is fitness – but  what if the limiting factor is not fitness?  That might not be a problem, of course, but if you’re hiring a coach as an investment surely you want more than a temporary boost.

Fitness is temporary.  There are certainly adaptations from long-term training that take a long time to disappear, but in essence your fitness is a function of the training that you’ve been doing recently.  If you know how to get fit and stay fit you don’t need to worry too much about losing fitness because you can get it back.  If that were not the case any injury would be career ending.  The best athletes and coaches know how to hit peak fitness at key times and don’t waste unnecessary energy being fitter than they need to be at other times.  What they make sure they don’t lose, however, is their technique.

The young triathletes that I coach probably get a bit sick of me putting on my best pantomime voice to ask “What does practise make?” and they know that the answer that I’m looking for is not “perfect” but “permanent”.  Practise makes perfect only if what you practise is perfect.  The downside of practising is that the more you do something, and the more natural it becomes, the more difficult it is to change.   The upside is that once you’ve learned good technique you have it for good.

This was really brought home to me a couple of years ago when I inherited my family piano.  I enjoyed playing it as a child and, though I stopped having lessons soon after I started, I practised a few pieces that I liked and learned to play them quite well.  Then I left home and didn’t play at all for nearly 30 years.  After all that time I sat in front of it …and didn’t know where to start.  So I dug out my first piano book and started at page one.  An hour or so later I’d gone right the way through all of the exercises and played every piece.  So I went through a few more.  In a nutshell I could play all of the pieces that I used to be able to play, and I couldn’t play anything that I hadn’t played before.  The things that I’d practised all those years ago were still tucked away in my memory – a little dusty, perhaps, but pretty much fully intact.  

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Next I decided to try to learn a few new pieces.  Following the teachings of Joy Lisney I decided to learn them well enough to play without the music in front of me.  Joy does this stuff for a living and learns entire scores:  It took me weeks to learn my first page.  But now it’s in there and I can find it – and and a few more pages too.  After a few minutes sitting at the piano I put them together in my mind and play them through.  It seems I can still learn new things at 50.

Swimming, cycling and running technique is much the same.  Learn it well and it’s with you for ever.  Learning it from scratch is relatively easy:  Kid’s stuff – literally.  Learning by modifying your existing deeply entrenched technique is, for most people, extremely difficult – difficult to the point that it might even be worth learning something completely new from scratch alongside and thinking of old technique and new technique as different activities.

You’ve probably come across drills:  single arm drills for swimming, single leg drills for cycling, butt-flick drills for running…  Drills are the way to learn technique.  Just ‘doing’ them probably won’t work, however – so having them written into your programme by a remote coach probably won’t work either.  Every good drill is the result of a coach’s thought process:  “How do I isolate this particular aspect of technique?”.  To get the benefit of the drill you have to understand it and learn how to do it perfectly.  The process of learning to do the drill properly is as important as repeating it.  Getting it wrong, or not understanding it, could be worse than a waste of time.  Most drills are easier to learn to do properly than ‘full technique’, that’s part of the point, but some drills seem harder.  Those are often the drills that really highlight the subtlety of the activity and mastering them takes your performance to a new level.

You might think that hiring a coach to set your programme is a good investment.  But for long-term returns the best investment might be hiring a coach to help you master technique.

The tension is killing me.

The best* make it look easy.  Or perhaps, more specifically, they make working hard look easy.  There are some exceptions, of course, but in general by the time the very best look stressed, ragged and tense the rest are nowhere to be seen.

Even in non-technical endurance sports like running and cycling, where fitness is king, good technique can still make a big difference.

But what is good technique?  There are no style marks, there is no tariff that rewards the risk takers, and there are no judges.

Fundamentally technique is good if it makes you go faster, saves energy or saves time, though it might do those in indirect ways – for example by saving you from injury, reducing the amount of time that you have to spend training or increasing the time that you can spend training.

In endurance sport (whether you’re doing it competitively or not) good technique also allows you to keep going.  Ideally you want to be limited only by your energy.  In reality you’re quite possibly limited by pain: maybe the pain of lactate build up but often pain in an annoying little muscle in your back, or your arms or your neck.

Lactate pain is ‘good’ pain.  Lactate builds up in muscles which are working hard and there’s nothing that you can do about that.  But in this case you can have too much of a good thing.  If lactate keeps building up you soon tie up …and slow down.  That happens to the best – just watch final of the Olympic 400m on the athletics track.

This is a blog, not a physiology paper, so I’ll stick to simple models.  Lactate is created in muscles which are working hard and is reprocessed in muscles which are relaxed.  If the reprocessing is keeping up with the creation you’re operating below your anaerobic threshold and your limiter is your energy store.  The point at which reprocessing fails to keep up is, by definition, the anaerobic threshold.  Above that point, instead of being energy limited, you’re lactate limited.

So the more reprocessing you can do the more lactate you can clear.  And the more lactate you can clear the harder you can work without crossing your threshold.  The best athletes make working hard look easy.  Staying relaxed at high intensity is great technique because it allows you to keep going for longer.

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When you’re running or swimming your movement patterns, and therefore your technique and your ability stay relaxed are entirely down to you: Your skill, your strength, your training, your discipline.  When you’re cycling, however, your movement patterns and your weight distribution are largely determined by the setup of your bike.  If your setup does not allow you to relax when you’re riding you’re going to be lactate limited before you need to be.

A key aspect of a good bike setup is getting rid of unnecessary tension – enabling the best muscles to work hard and the rest to stay relaxed.  There are several ‘sophisticated’ bike fitting systems around that try to fit a computer generated approximation of a skeleton.   It beats me why a good coach or fitter needs a computer generated stick figure on a screen when there’s a real person right there on the bike.  Once the set up is nearly right the final touches are all about movement and muscle activation; about tension and relaxation; about feeling equally good on the drops, the tops and the hoods (or the tribars of course); about understanding how the bike will feel and handle on the road – smooth road and rough road, uphill and downhill, in the wind and with people and maybe traffic around.  Fundamentally bike fitting is about enabling good technique.

 

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* There are some philosophical points about how we might interpret ‘best’ when talking about athletes in this way.  Arguably the best are those with the best physiology – and great physiology allows them to do well with relatively poor technique.  Only when they are close to the top does poor technique impact their ability to win – by which time change is very difficult (both to do and to countenance).  However, performing at the highest level in a competitive environment requires so many aspects to be ‘best’ that physiology alone is now rarely enough.

When it’s time to slow down

When I set people up on their bikes I set them up to hold onto the drops.  I make the point that most of us want to go as fast as we can for the amount of effort that we want to put in.  Even at easy efforts you’ll go faster if you’re more aerodynamic, and what’s the point in having an aerodynamic position if you can’t use it for more than a few minutes at at time?

Of course you can get very aero positions by holding the hoods.  Just as aero and efficient as on the drops.

But a good position on the drops isn’t just about being aero.

It’s by far the best position for stopping and slowing down quickly.  And therefore the best position for descending and cornering fast – as those both involve braking, ideally as late as possible to lose as little speed as possible.

The drops are obviously a good position for braking – assuming that the brakes are set where you can reach them – but why is holding the hoods such a bad position for braking?

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Here goes…

With your hands on the drops you squeeze the brake levers towards the bars.  You use your strong finger (or maybe the strongest two) and you pull perpendicular to the lever and close to the end, where you have a good mechanical advantage.  With your hands on the hoods, however, you can’t actually squeeze the brake levers.  You either have to lever them with your strong fingers or pull them towards the hoods (i.e. with an oblique force rather than a perpendicular one) using your weak fingers.   That might sound a bit convoluted – but the picture above illustrates it quite nicely.  With your hands on the hoods you simply cannot apply much force to the brake levers.  That means you cannot safely allow your speed to build up because you are not in control.  If that does not sound scary, it should.  And if it doesn’t feel scary to you on the bike it can feel pretty scary to those around you.

But that’s not all…

When you do apply the brakes the bike slows down.  Quite quickly – even if you’re holding the hoods.  You, on the other hand, still have the inertia that you had before you applied the brakes so you’ll carry on moving forward unless something slows you down.  It won’t be the saddle (unless it has a deep dip in which case it can slow you down by applying force to your genitals).  Saddles are quite good at stopping you sliding off the back, but the front is smooth and narrow.  So you’re left with your hands and your feet.  Your feet can only help if you can push back on the pedals – or at least on one of them.  You can only do this if your heel is below your toes and your centre of gravity is behind the pedal.  The way that I set people up on their bikes permits this, but a typical Retul fit for example, or a time trial fit does not.  That leaves just your hands and arms to stop you sliding off the front of the saddle when you apply the brakes.

But if your hands are on the hoods and trying to apply the brakes they’re full of tension and the mechanics of your brake squeezing action are tending to lift them and slide them forwards over the hoods!  So now, in addition to a death grip to squeeze the brakes you’re using the same grip to stop yourself shooting over the front of the bike.

I could go on…

With your hands and fingers squeezing the hoods and the levers to both slow the bike and prevent yourself shooting off the front you can’t modulate or control the pressure on the brakes.  Furthermore your bodyweight, with all of its momentum, is pressing heavily on the bars and the front wheel so you can neither control your steering or absorb any road shock through your elbows.  If you hit a bump or a slippery patch you’re likely to bounce or skid.  And if you weren’t in control when you took off what are the chances of you being in control when you land?

Bike fitting and set up isn’t just about aerodynamics and power.  And it isn’t just about comfort and injury prevention.  It’s about control too.

Professional cycling – life on the sharp end

The last piece I wrote (on my Facebook page) was about saddle adjustment.

I wrote that fore and aft adjustment was important to avoid a whole load of undesirable symptoms.

If the saddle is too far forward you end up sliding onto the nose and taking a lot of pressure on your perineum, and on your hands and arms.  It’s difficult to ride on the drops and to stay aero, and the bike is twitchy and unstable.

So why do a large number of professional cyclists ride like this?

When I started cycling in the late 1980s professionals rode perfectly fitted, made to measure bikes.  Most of them rode low and flat backed, they sat on the back of the saddle and they held their handlebars on the drops, they sat still and went in a straight line however hard they were working.  Most modern pros, in contrast, perch on the front of the saddle, hold onto the hoods, wiggle around all over the road and crash because they lose control on straights and sweeping corners.  Their bikes may be aero but their positions are usually anything but.  If they do hold the drops it’s for a few seconds at a time.

So why is that?  They must think about these things.

I think there are a number of reasons.

In the days of metal frames riders rode bikes that were custom built to their specific geometry – in many cases by their favourite frame builder and decorated to look like their sponsor’s.  Since the advent of moulded, monocoque, carbon-fibre frames every professional cyclist rides an off-the-peg frame provided by his or her sponsor.  Initially this caused a few problems and there were a large number of ultra set back seat posts and custom stems in evidence as riders used to custom geometry tried to get their familiar setup.

Before long, however, new pros coming into the peloton had never known custom geometry having come through the junior ranks on stock frames.

Of course some riders are fine on off the peg frames as the geometry suits their morphology.  However as in most sports certain body shapes are better for cycling than others.  As the legs do the mechanical work and the torso is ballast there’s a natural tendency for top flight cyclists to have relatively long legs, and in particular long femurs.  If you have long femurs you need to sit a long way behind the bottom bracket to avoid sliding forwards when you pedal.  To sit a long way behind the bottom bracket you need a shallow seat angle.  With the seat a long way back you have to be quite lean and flexible to ride with low handlebars.  Whilst most professional cyclists are lean and flexible, most of the people who buy top of the range, off the peg bicycles (i.e. the key market for bike manufacturers) are not.  More likely they’re middle aged men with short legs, long bodies, the flexibility of a desk jockey and, maybe, a bit of extra midriff.

The reality of the bicycle marketplace is not that the MAMILs ride the pros’ bikes, but vice versa.

So why doesn’t it matter?  Surely performance is everything.

What matters is performing in professional bike races …and there are a few factors that make professional bike racing quite different from any other form of bike racing – or any other form of cycling.  And also quite different from what it was just fifteen or twenty years ago.

Nowadays there is simply no requirement to time trial on a road bike.  This once essential requirement, to be able to break away and ride solo for a long time, is a dying art.

‘Thanks’ to radios, television in the team cars and GPS timing, professional cycling is a numbers game:  times, distances, numbers of riders, power.  The team mangers have all the information that they need to control the racing.  Only the weather is beyond their control.  Interesting things happen on wet and windy days.

Yes, but the riders still have to go fast for a long time!  Surely a more comfortable, stable, aerodynamic position would still be better…

I think so, and indeed there are still a few riders in the peloton who ride ‘on the back of the saddle’:  Vincenzo Nibali, Jasper Stuyven, Greg Van Avemaet, Mikal Kwiatkowski, Amy Pieters and Luis Leon Sanchez to name a few.  However the on-the-nose position is pretty powerful – and in the world of pro cycling power counts.  Two of the key requirements are to be able get up gentle hills REALLY fast and to bridge gaps quickly – both of which require immense power.

In the days before power meters cyclists paid a lot of attention to their training speed.  Staying low made a big difference.  These days they look at their power.

Other key requirements for professional cycling include lighting fast reactions, nerves of steel, a high pain threshold and a burning desire to be successful.  They can cope with discomfort and twitchy bikes, and think of crashing is an occupational hazard.

That doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to.